STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
Had musicians Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman not had a chance meeting at a Boston coffee house in the early 70’s, the formation of the folk rock duo “Aztec Two-Step” would likely have not come to fruition.
More than four decades later, the duo remains intact, playing to audiences around the world from modest coffee houses to Carnegie Hall. Their perfect blend of vocal harmonies, hot guitar leads, deep lyrical content and relentless drive have found the pair dedicating a lifetime to the art of making music. To this day, they remain among the elite as one of the acoustic world’s most respected and enduring artists.
Named from a poem by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghe, “Aztec Two-Step” signed with Elektra Records and released their self-titled album in 1972. Responsible for helping to introduce the 70’s generation to the music of the 60’s, the duo made a big splash with critics and rapidly became a presence on progressive FM and college radio.
“We fit into a certain radio format at the time, which was pretty much an alternative FM,” recalls Neal Shulman, from his home in New York City. “We had the support of a lot of stations, both commercial and non-commercial. The success of some of our records — without breaking into the Top 20 but still getting some significant airplay — was in the era of free format on radio. It wasn’t all about the charts.”
“We played a lot of shows,” adds Shulman. “We lived in New York, and we were kind of in the right place at the right time. If you look at a map of the country and you go: ‘OK, New England and down into Washington, D.C., Virginia and all of that and you look at the density of population and all the colleges that were there’ — we played every single one!”
“Thinking back on how we started and what the record business was like… we were kids,” says Shulman. “We didn’t know anything about anything. We were really able to connect and bond with our audience, and that audience has grown up and stayed with us.”
Throughput the 70’s and the decades to follow, Aztec Two-Step has released more than a dozen highly regarded albums. While significant commercial success has eluded them, they continue to enjoy a strong following.
Their live recording, “Time It Was – The Simon & Garfunkel Songbook” (2008), featured narration by the legendary late DJ Pete Fornatale, who provided commentary and insights based on his interviews with Simon and Garfunkel.
“In recent years, we started doing some shows that were not our original music as Aztec Two Step, playing our own original music period,” says Shulman. “Pete Fornatale was a seminal DJ in New York that started on WNEW FM. He became an icon in the golden era of FM radio. He had written a book about Simon and Garfunkel. We were fans. So, we ended up combining with him and his book, and he would actually narrate it. First, we did a Simon and Garfunkel thing and then it turned into an evening with narration with somebody who had actually interviewed Simon and Garfunkel over many years. From there, we expanded it out to include some other duos like the Everly Brothers, Peter and Gordon and Chad and Jeremy. So over the years, we turned that into an evening we called ‘Classic Duos.’”
“Classic Duos, in some ways, is the most fun,” adds Shulman, “because, what we’ll do is a little bit of all those duos and our own music. That’s really what’s new. It would be great to say we have a new record in the can, but we don’t. So that’s something that has been a big change up for us over the years.”
Aztec Two-Step was the subject of the 1999 documentary “No Hit Wonder.” Their song “Days of Horses,” was used as the opening and closing music in the 2012 documentary “Selling Cars in America.”
Rhino Records featured their song “The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On The Road)” in the compilation “Forever Changing-The Golden Age of Elektra Records 1963-1973” (2007). That same year, Real Simple magazine named the duo’s self-titled debut as one of the top five classic folk albums, joining the likes of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Tom Rush and Phil Ochs.
Commemorating their 40th Anniversary, the band released a 10th studio album, “Cause & Effect,” featuring a collection of socially themed songs, different interpretations of previously recorded material and new compositions.
“I think the last couple of decades have been the most fun,” reflects Shulman. “We’re not young. We’re not crazy. We’re just playing. You go through hard times, but at some point you get older and you kind of come to this realization that your career is what it is. That’s the reward!”
“In the early days, I think your eye is always on the horizon – “Where’s that hit record the record company is telling us we’ve got to get and we want?” adds Shulman. “I’m very glad to have lived this dream, and it was a dream. When I was a kid I thought, ‘I’d love to be able to play music for a living.’”
IF YOU GO: Aztec Two-Step performs at 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 25 at Steel City Coffee House, 203 Bridge Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460. Tickets can be purchased by calling (610) 933-4043 or on line at www.steelcitycoffeehouse.com.
To stay up to date with Aztec Two-Step visit www.aztectwostep.com